Global Carbon Emissions on the Rise After Three-Year Pause

An uptick in China and U.S. coal use is expected to make 2017 the year of greatest emissions yet

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For the last three years, total carbon emissions seemed to plateau at 36 billion tons per year, bringing hope that the world had hit peak emissions. But, as Chris Mooney reports for The Washington Post, several studies published today suggest that the final emissions tally expected for 2017 will reach 37 billion tons—a billion tons more than last year.

Spearheaded by the Global Carbon Project, the emissions report details the annual amount of atmospheric carbon released from burning of coal, oil and natural gas. The projected emission values also include those released during cement production and gas flaring (burning of excess natural gas). The latest report suggests that 2017 will end in a roughly 2 percent rise over the prior year. As Mooney reports, there is slight uncertainty in the projected value; the rise in emissions might be as low as 1 percent or as high as 3 percent. Regardless, the new values are seen as a setback in the fight against climate change.

Much of this year's increase comes from China, which accounts for about 28 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a press release. China’s output is estimated to have increased 3.5 percent this year after a rise in industrial production led to an increase in the use of coal power. Lack of rain this year also diminished the nation’s use of hydropower. A similar trend is expected next year.  

As Craig Welch at National Geographic reports, China’s uptick is not the only reason for concern. Both the United States and European Union, which have seen steady declines over the last decade, are expected to drop more slowly this year. On average, the U.S. has reduced emissions 1.2 percent per year, but will likely only drop 0.4 percent in 2017. That’s because natural gas prices have recently increased, causing slightly greater demand for coal. The European Union has had consistent 2.2 percent declines but will only see a 0.2 percent drop this year.

And though these numbers only include direct emissions like burning fossil fuels, that isn't the only source of emissions. Land use changes, like deforestation, result in a loss of carbon sinks and the inadvertent increase in global emissions. It's estimated that an additional 4 billion tons of emissions will come from these alternative sources, bringing the total for 2017 to 41 billion tons.

“It’s hard to say whether 2017 is a hiccup on the way to a trajectory that eventually peaks and goes downward—or if it's about returning to high growth," Corinne Le Quéré, scientist at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia and lead researcher of the project, tells Welch.

There are mixed signals about what direction emissions are headed. According to the press release, 22 nations, representing 20 percent of global emissions, were able to decrease their emissions over the last decade even while their economies grew. But another study released today suggests that we may still have a ways to go before reaching peak emissions. As Welch reports, economic activity is expected to increase in the next year, and that is usually associated with an uptick of emissions.

Despite gains in wind and solar energy, much of the world still relies on carbon-intensive energy.  “Eighty percent of the new energy infrastructure we’ve built around the world is still fossil fuels,” Stanford climate scientist and lead author of the study Roberi Jackson tells Welch. “We are more energy efficient but just as carbon intensive as we were in 1990.”

The situation isn’t completely hopeless. Stefan Rahmstorf, a climate scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research who was not involved in the new studies, tells Mooney that humans can emit about 600 billion more tons of carbon dioxide and still have a chance to keep the global temperature rise under 2 degrees Celsius.

At our current emissions rate that leaves 15 years to get our act together and start to significantly reduce emissions. “If we start to ramp down emissions from now on we can stretch this budget to last us about 30 years,” he says. “With every year that we wait we will have to stop using fossil energy even earlier.”

The recent spate of natural disasters could be a preview of what could be to come with continued emissions and climate change, Le Quéré says in the release. “This year we have seen how climate change can amplify the impacts of hurricanes with stronger downpours of rain, higher sea levels and warmer ocean conditions favoring more powerful storms,” she says. “This is a window into the future. We need to reach a peak in global emissions in the next few years and drive emissions down rapidly afterwards to address climate change and limit its impacts.”